Murder of a Miner: The Shocking True Story of Tony Boyle and Jock Yablonski

It was on September 6 of 1973 that William Anthony “Tough Tony” Boyle was arrested and charged with the murder of his United Mine Works of America union rival, Joseph Albert “Jock” Yablonski. Yablonski committed no crime; he merely challenged Boyle’s leadership of the union. The murder occurred on December 31, 1969, with Yablonski’s wife and 25-year-old daughter also being killed in the incident. A harrowing tale of greed, corruption, and one man’s ruthless quest for power; this is the story of W.A. Boyle and Jock Yablonski.

A Background of W.A. Boyle

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(Original Caption) 3/9/1970-Washington, DC- United Mine Workers President W.A. ‘Tony’ Boyle, shown here at a press conference swearing before almighty God he was telling the truth, stoutly denies either he or the nation did any wrong in his re-election in December and the murder of his opponent a month later. Boyle said, ‘I came here today to set the record straight, to give you the facts.’

William Anthony Boyle was born on December 1 of 1904 in Bald Butte, Montana. Boyle was born in a mining camp, and his father was a miner, as were many generations of Boyle men before him. It was clear that he would also go on to work in the mines, and that’s precisely what he did after graduating high school. He joined up with the United Mine Works of America (UMWA) and became well-respected among union members, being appointed the president of District 27.

In 1948, he became the assistant to the president of the union, John L. Lewis. Boyle held this position for over a decade, becoming UMWA vice president in 1960. Lewis retired the same year and Thomas Kennedy, aged 73, took his place. Kennedy was old and frail, so Boyle assumed many of his duties and became full president in 1963 after Kennedy died.

A Background of Joseph Yablonski

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Joseph A. Yablonski, member of the International Executive Board of the United Mine Workers of America announces his candidacy for the presidency of the UMA.

Joseph Albert Yablonski was born on March 3 of 1910 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. His parents came to America from Poland and set their son to work in the mines at an early age. When his father died in a mining incident, Yablonski started to get involved with the UMWA, seeking better conditions for the workers.

Like Boyle, Yablonski worked his way up through the echelons of the union, becoming a representative to the international executive board in 1940 and earning a regulatory role of District 5 in 1958. Unlike Boyle, who seemed focused on his power and pleasing the mine owner, Yablonski was regarded as a real voice of the people.

Clashes between Boyle and Yablonski

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(Original Caption) Erie, Pennsylvania: Former United Mineworkers president W.A. Tony Boyle is questioned by newsmen as he arrives at Erie County Airport where shortly afterward he was confronted by Kenneth Yablonski, son of slain Joseph ‘Jock’ Yablonski as he got into the car. Boyle was called ‘killer’ by Kenneth. The former UMW leader is here to testify at the William Prater trial.

Boyle and Yablonski had completely opposing views on how the union should be run, so it was only natural that they clashed several times over the years. Boyle was accused of cronyism, introducing reforms to give himself more power and turn the union into more of a dictatorship than a democracy. A fissure between the union leaders and the workers became deeper and deeper, with Boyle earning his “Tough Tony” nickname for being regarded as a bully.

Yablonski was removed from his role as district president by Boyle in 1965 due to his dissenting views on Boyle’s leadership. However, Yablonski wasn’t going to go down without a fight. In 1969, he announced that he was running against Boyle for UMWA presidency. Corruption marred the election, which saw Boyle win by a landslide. The president had used bribes, intimidation, and other illegal methods to win the race, and Yablonski knew it. He accused Boyle of cheating his way to a win and vowed not to give up.

The Murder

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(Original Caption) Erie, Pennsylvania: William Jackson Prater, in a white coat, is surrounded by security as he is led to Erie county courthouse. Prater, accused of the murders of United Mineworkers insurgent Joseph ‘Jack’ Yablonski, his wife, and daughter, took the stand in his own defense.

Sadly, Joseph Yablonski never fulfilled that promise. On December 31 of 1969, three hitmen sneaked into his home while he and his family slept. They shot and killed Yablonski, as well as his wife, Margaret, and their daughter, Charlotte. Yablonski woke up in time to realize what was going on and tried to grab his gun before being shot down.

Yablonski’s son, Kenneth discovered the bodies, and thousands of miners went on strike when they heard the news. They were sure that Boyle had been involved in the murders, and they were right. Boyle had paid $20,000 to organize the crime, but police wouldn’t discover this until a few years later.

The Investigation

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(Original Caption) Aubran W. Martin is led to court where his attorney, Mark Goldberg, is trying for a change in venue 11/1. Aubran is one of five defendants charged with the triple slayings of United Mineworker’s Joseph ‘Jock’ Yablonski, his wife, and daughter.

In the wake of the murder, investigations begin into the UMWA. Yablonski’s attorney had been pushing for an investigation into the rigged the election, and the killings finally triggered some action. In 1971, Boyle was indicted for embezzlement. The following year, the results of the election were thrown out, and a new election was held, elected Arnold Miller, an ex-miner and labor activist, as the new President, beating Boyle by some 14,000 votes.

Meanwhile, prosecutor Richard A. Sprague investigated the murders over the course of three years and found enough evidence to accuse Boyle. Then, on September 6 of 1973, Boyle was arrested for the killings of the Yablonskis. The warrant for his arrest revealed that he’d been planning the assassination as far back as June of 1969 when Yablonski first announced his run for the presidency.

Trial and Appeals

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(Original Caption) Washington, DC.: Joseph A. (Chip) Yablonski, son of slain UMW official Joseph A. (Jock) Yablonski, appears at a press conference here March 6th.

In December of 1973, Boyle was convicted of his embezzlement charges and given a three-year prison sentence. On the 25 March 1974, his trial for the murder of Jock Yablonski and his family began. The trial lasted until April 11, with over 50 witnesses stepping forward and revealing that Boyle had ordered the killing and had paid a large sum of money for it to be carried out. Boyle’s defense claimed that Yablonski had been killed by other parties in the UMWA, but had little proof to back up the claim.

Boyle claimed he was sick on the day of the murder and had nothing to do with it, but was cross-examined by Sprague for almost 90 minutes and slowly cracked under pressure. The jury was convinced that Boyle was guilty and Tough Tony received three consecutive life sentences for the three murders. In 1977, the state’s Supreme Court overturned Boyle’s conviction and awarded him a new trial. Once again, he was found guilty on February 18 of 1978. He appealed once more in 1979, but his motion was rejected.

Aftermath and Legacy

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(Original Caption) Media, PA: Former United Mine Workers president, W.A. ‘Tony’ Boyle enters the Media Courthouse 2/17 as the jury is expected to get the case in his trial for the 1969 Yablonski murders. He is charged with masterminding the murders.

Yablonski had much support among the miners, and many paid homage to him after his death. He didn’t live to create the change he wanted among the UMWA, but his murder did ultimately lead to the removal of Boyle as president and better conditions for the workers. A historical marker was placed in California, Pennsylvania in honor of Yablonski.

Boyle, meanwhile, died on May 31, 1985. He suffered from various stomach and heart problems in his later years and had to go to the hospital several times. Multiple documentaries and crime shows have taken a look at the case over the years, as well as a 1986 TV movie called Act of Vengeance, starring Charles Bronson as Yablonski and Wilford Brimley as Boyle.